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Pit Bulls in Drug Dealers’ Fierce Canine Corps : Crime: Ferocious dogs are being used in high- stakes and illegal dogfights at the same time as they serve as the weapons of choice, ‘four-legged guns.’

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sherry DeGenova cringes each time she sees a snarling pit bull being paraded down the street, a common sight in inner cities across the country.

“It’s terrible what’s being done to these dogs,” said DeGenova, kennel manager at the Hartford Animal Control Shelter.

More and more, she said, the dogs are being used against other pit bulls in illegal, high-stakes dogfights. Then, when they have been defeated and maimed, the injured animals are abandoned and left to roam the streets.

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Warring drug dealers also train the dogs to be killers and then use them as “four-legged guns.”

“We’re seeing a disturbing new trend, a nationwide trend. Members of street gangs are using pit bulls as status symbols and as weapons,” said Rachel Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the U.S., based in Washington, D.C. “It’s a huge problem in Washington.”

In the nation’s capital, the Humane Society’s dog pound destroys as many as 10 to 15 pit bulls each month, said Rosemary Vozobule, director of humane law enforcement.

“These are dogs we’ve found running down the street or left abandoned in boarded-up houses,” she said. “In some areas of the city there are dogfights every single night.”

In Hartford, the dog pound recently had to destroy six pit bulls confiscated at an impromptu dogfight in the inner city.

“In the cases of many of these dogs, it’s doing them a favor to put them to sleep, considering how they’ve been treated during their lives,” DeGenova said.

Illegal “back-yard breeders” beat their dogs and bind their legs to make them more vicious, she said. They wrap heavy chains around the puppies to build up their chests, and sometimes even pen their pit bulls with smaller dogs and encourage the pit bulls to tear apart the weaker dogs.

Dog wardens say most of the abandoned pit bulls are either too maimed or too vicious to be eligible for adoption.

In Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, the situation is totally out of control, said Ralph Corson, the city’s chief animal control officer.

“We have pit bulls in our shelters that are absolutely wild,” Corson said.

“Pit bulls are the dog of choice among the gangs now. They use them like four-legged guns,” he said, adding that the gangs have begun breaking into the pound and stealing pit bulls that have been picked up on the streets.

In one recent month, eight pit bulls were stolen from the Bridgeport animal shelter and from other shelters around the state, said Richard Johnson, president of the Connecticut Humane Society.

Johnson said some of the dogs were used as bait to help train other pit bulls for high-stakes fights that are held in housing project courtyards and back streets.

“We are talking about thousands of dollars that can change hands in one of these contests,” he said. “That would certainly convince someone to break into a shelter and steal a dog.”

The problem is not confined to the East Coast. In California, macho dope dealers frequently use pit bulls for protection and prestige, said Glenn Howell, animal control director for the city of Oakland.

“There’s a lot of pit-bull fighting in East Oakland, and last year a police officer was shot to death when he tried to confiscate a dog that had bitten someone,” he said.

Hartford canine control officer Jerry Cloutier, who recently arrested two teen-agers after coming upon a dogfight, said staged dogfights have become a popular form of entertainment among drug dealers and gang members.

He said a pit bull can be one of several types of fighting dogs, including the American Staffordshire terrier and the bull terrier. The dogs, which have massive chests, large heads and powerful jaws, are extremely combative and often will fight to the death.

Pit bulls have been banned in Miami, Fla., where it has been a crime to own one for the past five years.

But the Humane Society of the United States said the problem isn’t so much the dogs themselves as the irresponsible breeders and owners who encourage them to become vicious and train them to kill other animals.

Rachel Lamb said the Humane Society has worked for years to wipe out organized dog fighting, which is illegal throughout the country and a felony in most states.

“We’ve had a great deal of success against organized dog fighting, which usually occurs in the South,” Lamb said. “In some Southern states there are dog-fighting clubs that actually put out newsletters.”

“But,” she added, “it’s almost impossible to get a handle on these impromptu dogfights that are proliferating among the urban gangs; it’s very frustrating.”

In Coventry, a small town east of Hartford, abandoned pit bulls have found a friend in Sharon Veci. She has taken it upon herself to try to find homes for some of the abandoned dogs.

“Most of these dogs, when they’re finally rescued, have to be put down,” Veci said. “They’ll attack any dog they get close to, and you just can’t trust them. But if you get them young enough, or if they haven’t been mistreated and taught to fight, they can make wonderful, gentle pets. They’re incredibly loyal.”

Veci became an advocate for the breed after adopting two pit bulls from the Hartford pound several years ago. She named them Rita and Ely.

“I tell potential adopters that while they’re great family dogs they’re also independent, sort of like big cats,” she said. “And they’re not fantastic with strangers. My husband and I haven’t done a lot of entertaining since Rita and Ely came to live with us.”


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